Public Art in the Virtual Sphere

College Art Association, 100th Annual Conference, sponsored by the Public Art Dialogue

Date & Time: Thursday, February 23, 2012, 5:30-7:00 PM.

Location: West Hall Meeting Room 501ABC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St. Los Angeles, CA

Chairs: Mary M. Tinti, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum; John Craig Freeman, Emerson College

John Craig Freeman, Emerson College

Christiane Paul, The New School

Ben Rubin, EAR Studio

Whereas the town common was once the quintessential public place to air grievances, display solidarity, express difference, celebrate similarity, remember, mourn, and reinforce shared values of right and wrong, the public square is no longer the only anchor for interactions in the public realm. That geography has been relocated to a novel terrain, one that encourages exploration of cyber arts, new media, augmented reality, mobile location based monuments, and virtual memorials – all with profound implications for art in the public sphere and the discourse that surrounds it. This year’s PAD roundtable, Public Art in the Virtual Sphere, features a conversation about the non-traditional spaces in which artists are producing public art and the exciting emerging technologies they are creating to make those new geographies possible.

Emergent Technology as Art Practice and Public Art as Intervention

John Craig Freeman

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, 1989.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Rocky Flats was one of the network of seventeen national nuclear weapons facilities operated under the direction of the Department of Energy. It was the only plant that manufactured the plutonium detonation systems, or triggers, for the nation’s nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War.

Rocky Flats Colorado, 1989.

In the summer of 1989, Rocky Flats was the subject of an FBI investigation. The resulting inquiry led to the suspension of plutonium operations and made public a history of gross environmental mismanagement, including the detection of sixty-two pounds of plutonium dust in the duct work of the ventilation system (enough to build six nuclear weapons). To this day it is considered one of the most contaminated sites in the world.

Empty billboards on Highway 93, Rocky Flats, Colorado, 1989.

Before I had arrived in Boulder, a group of environmentalists known as Citizens Against Billboards on Highway 93 had organized a successful boycott against a group of billboard that were lined up in a row, just outside the front gates of the Rocky Flats plant. The ads, located along one of the most scenic parts of the drive along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, were considered an eyesore. Plutonium contamination is, of course, invisible. Unable to convince local businesses to advertise on the billboards, the owner was driven out of business and the billboard structures stood empty for several years.

Empty billboard with Rocky Flats and Denver in the distance, 1989.

This image shows the proximity of the billboard structures to the Rocky Flats plant, with the water tower, and the Denver skyline just twelve miles down wind.

Sketch prints of "Operation Greenrun II" in studio, 1989.

I recognized the billboards potential for public art and began making proposals using early Macintosh desktop computing technology.

Fabrication of "Operation Greenrun II," 1990.

Each of eleven 10′ X 40′ billboard faces were made of over 2,000 individual bitmap images printed on a simple office laser printer. Keep in mind that commercial billboards were hand painted at this time. The technology to print a billboard would not exist for another five years.

"Operation Greenrun II," Rocky Flats, Colorado, November 14, 1990.

The reason I am returning to this project is that it demonstrates an early interest in emergent technology as art practice and public art as Intervention. Intervention in in both institutions of high culture and intervention in government policy and the institutions of the nation state. Over the course of about a mile, the billboards read Today, We Made, A 250,000 Year, Commitment. The half-life of of plutonium is a quarter of a million years.

"Operation Greenrun II" media coverage, 1990-91.

Think of the media as a kind of virtual reality, which it is, that can be intervened in. The decision to shutdown Rocky Flats for good was made in 1991, during the media firestorm this project created, proving that art does have a role to play in tangible political change.

Networked Monumentality and Virtual Memorials

Boston Common, Google Maps, 2011.

For the past eight years, I have worked on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets overlooking the historic Boston Common, the first public park in the United States. I walk across the park every morning. As I do, I often contemplate the role that the town square plays in shaping of political discourse and national identity formation. As the location of the public sphere, the town square is where we air grievances, display solidarity, express our difference, celebrate our similarities, remember and mourn.

Nineteenth century stereoscopic view of the Old Elm Tree in the Boston Common. The tree was destroyed by a storm in 1876.

Public hangings took place at the Old Elm Tree on the Common until 1817, an example of the public reinforcement of the shared values of right and wrong. The Common still maintains a tradition of soapbox oratory and we even have a town crier, who exchanges weather forecast and sport scores for spare change.

Etching of Mary Dyer being led to execution on Boston Common for spreading Quaker principles on June 1, 1660.

This is why monuments and memorials are located in town squares. As Greg Ulmer points out in his book Electronic Monuments, it is an expression and acknowledgment of sacrifice on behalf of shared values. The public square is a geographical anchor for the public sphere. As Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities, the nation state was made possible, in part, by the printing press, including the invention of associated forms and practices such as the novel, contributing to the creation of national languages. Newspapers and the rise of a mass reading public within industrialization are part of this history.

In the early 1990s we witnessed the migration of the public sphere from the physical realm, the town square and its print augmentation, to the virtual realm, the Internet. In effect, the location of public discourse and the site of national identity formation has been extended into the virtual world. As Bernard Stiegler, among others, has argued, this virtual dimension, with its industrialization of collective memory, is again transforming the “We,” away from the nation state to a new collectivity that he fears will be an ersatz global “America.”

This threat/promise is a context for experiments in augmented reality which allows us to overlay this virtual public sphere onto our experience of the physical, cultural world. It is important to keep in mind that the practices of the virtual public sphere have to be invented, just as the equipment is invented. What is the future of “We” in electracy? It is open to invention.


Tiananmen SquARed

The 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square with the "Goddess of Democracy" in the background, by Catherine Henriette/Afp/Getty Images, June 2, 1989.

In 1989, students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing erected a 10 meter tall plaster statue known as the “Goddess of Democracy” during the uprising in Tiananmen Square, taunting government officials to tear it down, which of course, they did.

"Tianamen SquARed: Goddess of Democracy, 4Gentlemen, 2011.

Tiananmen SquARed” is a two part augmented reality public art project and memorial, by the anonymous ARt collective 4Gentlemen, dedicated human rights and democracy worldwide. Built for smart phone mobile devices, this project allows people to see virtual objects integrated into the physical location as if they existed in the real world.

The "Goddess of Democracy" model with reference image, 2011.

The project includes a virtual replica of the “Goddess of Democracy.”

The "Goddess of Democracy" augment at Tiananmen Square overlooking Mao's portrait and the Forbidden City, 2011.

Placed back in Tiananmen Square, where she belongs.

"Tank Man" model and reference image, by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, Chang'an Avenue, June 5, 1989.

The other indelible image from the Tiananmen Square uprising was, of course, “Tank Man” facing down a column of Type 62 tanks.

"Tank Man" augment at Chang'an Avenue, 2011.

"Tank Man" augment at Chang'an Avenue, 2011.

Visible only through the view finder of a smart phone, both augmentations have been placed in Beijing at the precise GPS coordinates where the original incidents took place.

The "Goddess of Democracy," Al Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011.

The “Goddess of Democracy” has also been placed at Al Tahrir Square in Cairo, and elsewhere in North Africa and the middle east during the Arab Spring last year.

Water wARs

"Water wARs, Piazza San Marco", Piazza San Marco, June 2, 2011.

Water wARs” is a pavilion for undocumented artists/squatters and water war refugees, which anticipates the flood of environmental refugees into the developed world caused by environmental degradation, global warming and the privatization of the world’s drinking water supply by multinational corporations like Bechtel, pictured here in the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s main public square, during the opening of the 54th Venice Biennale, International Art Exhibition, ILLUMInations, last summer.

American Plutocracy

Zuccatti Park, November 11, 2011.

Of course Zuccatti Park in lower Manhattan, is not a public square at all. It is privately owned.

The "Goddess of Demoracy," 4Gentlemen, Zuccatti Park, November, 2011.

Even after the police raid, AR Occupy Wall Street remains. Both in Zuccatti Park…

"American Plutocracy," New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, NYC, November 2011.

…and on Wall Street.

"Tank Man," 4Gentlemen, New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, NYC, November 2011.

Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos

The "Border Memorial" Calaca Model, 2011.

The “Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos,” is an augmented reality public art project and memorial, dedicated to the thousands of migrant workers who have died along the U.S./Mexico border in recent years, trying to cross the desert southwest in search of work and a better life. This project allows people to visualize the scope of the loss of life by marking each location where human remains have been recovered along the border and the surrounding desert.

Visualization of the "Border Memorial" Data in Google Earth, 2012.

Based on a traditional form of wood-carving from Oaxaca, the virtual augmentation objects consist of life sized, three dimensional geometric models of a skeleton effigy or calaca. Calacas are used in commemoration of lost loved ones during the Mexican Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead festivals.

This visualization was created by importing the database, which was acquired from the Arizona medical examiners office, into Google Earth.

Imagine now, the entire mobile Internet, and its physical manifestations’ of place, as a world wide public square.

The “Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos,” screenshot outside of Nogales, Arizona, January 17, 2012.

In January, 2012, I drove across southern Arizona for field testing and to document as many of the individual data points as possible. It was sobering work.

On the road to Ajo along Arizona Highway 86.

The border fence near the Lukeville crossing at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, January 18, 2012.

LA Re.Play

“LA Re.Play,” Los Angeles, February 22-29, 2012.

LA Re.Play,” is an Exhibition of Mobile Art in conjunction with the CAA session “Mobile Art: The Aesthetics of Mobile Network Culture in Placemaking.” I hope you will take some time to experience it.

La Lotería Aumentada

“La Lotería Aumentada,” by Patricia Espinosa and John Craig Freeman, a Borderline Projects, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, 2012.

Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street is in the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles. La Placita Olvera or the Plaza should be regarded as Los Angeles’ first public square.

In “La Lotería Aumentada,” I collaborated with the New York based painter, Patricia Espinosa and Borderline Projects to transform the Mexican card game La Lotería into a vortex of contemporary cross-cultural icons at Olvera Street.

Monumento a las Mujeres Desaparecidas

"Monumento a las Mujeres Desaparecidas," by John Craig Freeman and Christina Marin , Olvera Street, Los Angeles, 2012.

I collaborated with performance artists Christina Marin on “Monumento a las Mujeres Desaparecidas,” a monument to the missing women of Ciudad Juárez and the opium brides of Afghanistan at Olvera Street.

Olvera Street is arguably the oldest theme park in existence. With its foundations in Old Town Los Angeles, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, Olvera Street was converted into a festive Mexican marketplace in the 1930′s, a full two decades before the founding of Disneyland. For over eighty years, Olvera Street has provided a safer alternative border experience for tourists. It is perfectly plausible that Walt Disney‘s ideas of transporting people to imaginary places for amusement were formed, in part, during his visits to Olvera Street and nearby Chinatown.

“Monumento a las Mujeres Desaparecidas” turns this border-themed virtual reality on its head by introducing very real contemporary border issues through augmented reality technology.


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